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Could Obama and Rouhani Make a Deal?

Hassan Rouhani

The historic phone call between President Obama and Iranian President Rouhani has been the biggest foreign policy story of the week, yet we have remained relatively silent on the issue. The truth is that we have been waiting for the dust to settle before taking a view, because there are a few different ways to look at this.

The optimistic view is that Iran is feeling a lot of pain from the sanctions and figures that it can get the best deal from Obama. While it will bargain hard, it is ready in principle to come to a genuinely workable agreement.

A more pessimistic view is that Iran is overplaying its hand: it figures that Obama is so vacillating and weak that he is looking for a face-saving way to retreat from his core demands. If this is true, any negotiations will sputter along until the Iranians realize the Americans aren’t looking for a non-humiliating surrender and the Americans realize the Iranians aren’t serious about a real deal.

And then there’s the gray zone—where Iran offers an approach that the Obama administration kind of likes, but the Israelis, Saudis and some of the national security establishment in the US doesn’t think does the job.

Of the three, we are hoping for the first, but think the odds don’t favor it, partly because there are regional issues as well as nukes to be discussed—does Iran think Assad staying in power is part of the deal? Option two would simply leave us where we are now when it sputters out, with the administration locked rhetorically into a potential war that it really doesn’t want to fight. And option three is the messiest of all. Domestically, Iran hawks are unlikely to be able to block a deal they don’t like—especially at a time when the whole country is heartily sick of the Middle East and is willing to give any path that looks like an exit a try. Internationally it could be trickier—history has seen stranger bedfellows than the Israelis and the Saudis and in both cases there are lots of concerns about a nuclear Iran.

The one promising sign here is that it is in both the interests of Iran and the US to get a deal—neither side gains anything from forcing this to war. The US basically wants a favorable balance of power in the Middle East that blocks any single country from having the ability to interrupt the flow of oil to world markets. Over the years we’ve fallen in and out with most of the major players in the region (Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Israel) but have seen Saudi Arabia as a combination brass ring (because it has so much oil) and canary in the coal mine (because if anybody was going to try to gain the ability to block the oil flow, they would have to deal with the Saudis).

In principle, political hostilities and grudges aside and bracketing all concerns about the nature of the Iranian regime, the US and Iran can work out a deal.

But in practice, the deal has been elusive. The widespread perception in the Middle East that Obama is indecisive probably does encourage Iran to explore the possibility that it can get a better deal from him. That is probably the reason for this diplomatic opening—but that doesn’t mean the US shouldn’t explore it. We should, but we should also not give our key regional allies the sense that we are about to sell them down the river in order to get peace with Iran.

[Hassan Rouhani photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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  • Corlyss

    No deal. Only the appearance of a deal, sufficient to get the two of them, Obama and Rouhani the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. It’s enough to make one gag.

  • wigwag

    The Saudis have the ability to make things very, very uncomfortable for the United States; in fact, popular sentiments to the contrary, they have far more leverage over the United States than Israel does. They also have a master strategist calling the foreign policy shots in Prince Bandar.

    Antagonizing the Saudis by appeasing the Iranians could turn out to be the single biggest policy mistake that the Obama Administration will ever make in its eight years in office.

    Just some of the actions the Saudis could take to show their displeasure include:

    1) Pumping less oil and letting prices skyrocket.

    2) Shopping around for their own nukes (they already have the American supplied jets to deliver them.

    3) Cozying up in a big way to Vladamir Putin and the Russians.

    4) Intensifying pressure on the Egyptians and Baharainis to crack down on dissidents even more forcefully than they already are.

    5) Cutting back on financial aid to the Palestinian Aurhority and international institutions that assist Palestinians even more than they already are.

    6) Declining to continue to shore up Turkey’s shaky financial sector.

    7) Accepting payment for at least some of its oil exports in currency other than U.S. Dollars.

    The list of other ways they could punish Obama for kissing up to Iran goes on and on.

    • Pete

      But also remember that the U.S. could destabilize Saudi Arabia.

      For too long we’ve treated those barbarians with kid gloves. Maybe it’s time to smack some sense into them.

      • wigwag

        To paraphrase Lyndon Baines Johnson, they may be barbarians, but at least they are our barbarians. At least they have been until now. The American alliance with the Saudis may be not be palitibile but it’s an alliance that has been highly useful in numerous ways.

        The issue at hand goes far beyond Iranian nuclear intentions; any reproachment with Iran, even a minor one, is sure to be seen as highly threatening by the Saudis. I suspect we are dealing with a zero sum game; the closer we get to the Iranians the more estranged we will become from the Saudis. The ramifications of this for American citizens could be far from trivial.

        At the very least a deft diplomatic touch is called for. Several Administrations of both political parties could be relied on to have this touch, but not the Obama Administration.

        • bpuharic

          The conservative solution would be to send in the Marines. To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail

          • wigwag

            Not everything is about a conservative versus progressive take on things. “Conservatives” are all over the map on the Middle East and “Progressives” are as well.

            The Muslim world is in the midst of two civil wars; a Sunni Cold War between the Muslim Brotherhood and its fellow travelers on one side and the more radical and secular Sunnis on the other and a hot war between Sunni and Shia.

            Despite America’s long standing alliance with the Saudis, Obama decided to ally himself with the Turks and the Morsi Government in Egypt against the Saudis and their allies.

            A reproachment between the United States and Iran will inevitably be vowed by the Saudis as virtually traitorous. They take the hot war between the Sunnis and the Shia very, very seriously.

            They won’t stand still for America’s failure to offer them unambiguous support. They will even the score. It’s America’s poor who will suffer when gas prices escalate and they are forced to decide between putting food on the table or oil in the tank to run the boiler in the winter.

          • bpuharic

            What he decided to do was ally himself with the first democratic govt in Egyptian history, and one of the first in the history of the Arab world

            Only conservatives would see that as a mistake.

            And we should continue to have a potential nuclear armed country as an adversary

            Only conservatives would see that as an advantage

          • Tom

            A democratic government run by people who, if they were in America, you would deride as theocratic filth.

          • bpuharic

            Correct and so what? So they’re not at our level of democratic institutions.

            And, of course, the counter argument was made by Dinesh D’Sousza a few years ago when he suggested Christians ally themselves in the US with Islamists to fight gay marriage etc. YOUR people already suggested turning the US into a theocracy

          • Tom

            Yeah, because, as we all know, fighting gay marriage is totally the same thing as setting up a system based on shariah law.

          • bpuharic

            America wasn’t born as a total democracy either. A fact lost on the right which treats history like a baby treats a diaper.

          • Tom

            Because, as we all know, a system that enshrines things like an independent judiciary and religious and political pluralism is totally the same thing as what was going on in Egypt.
            What was that about history?

          • bpuharic

            An ‘independent’ judiciary, as a matter of law, was not established in America until almost 100 years after the constitution was written.

            Yeah. History

          • Tom

            As a matter of direct, written law–correct.
            As a matter of custom, um, yeah.
            Yeah. History.

    • bpuharic

      I was wondering how long it would take ‘appeasement’ to pop up. In fact I predicted, on this very blog, the day of the Obama phone call, that some right winger would rush to judgement with this term.

      The Saudis aren’t going to pump less oil. Their oil is less important than it was 20 years ago, and cutting back production and using it as a weapon will just accelerate US domestic production.

      Shopping around for nukes? There had been speculation in the regime of Bush they’d be doing that. It’s hardly an idea unique to the Obama adminstration.

      Cozying up to the Russkies? Great. Let the Russians deal with religious fanatics who think flying planes into buildings is Allah’s will.

      None of the options you mention punishes the US. They merely confirm how powerless the Saudis actually are, and how dependent on the US they are.

      • wigwag

        I don’t like the Saudis either so I wish it was as simple as you are making it.

        Middle class and poor Americans will be dramatically worse off than they are now if the largest energy producing country in the world (Russia) forms a strong bond with the second largest energy producer in the world (Saudi Arabia). Actually it’s worse than that because most of the oil producing Gulf states follow Saudi Arabia’s lead.

        Yes, by the end of the decade the U.S. may overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia in energy production but that will be small comfort to lower income Americans who will watch gas and heating oil prices escalate if the Saudis cut production.

        Remember, the Saudis have single handedly made up for the loss of Iranian production caused by the sanctions regime; they can reverse this policy at a moments notice which will have profound repercussions for energy prices and the world economy. Which Americans do you suppose would suffer most if the Saudis chose to retaliate against Obama or even just to send him a little message?

        Of course this would have potential negative consequences as well for Saudi Arabia but I wouldn’t underestimate their willingness to accept negative consequences; remember they really hate Persians and the Shia.

        No one benefits from the dollars status as a reserve currency more than lower and middle class Americans. It’s one of the reasons we can finance deficits at rock bottom interest rates. In the longer run, the Saudis in league with the Russians and Chinese could put a dent in the dollars status. Again this would have some serious consequences for the Saudis as well, but I wouldn’t discount their willingness to move in this direction if they are alienated by a new-found relationship between the United States and Iran. The wealthy will be fine whether the dollar is the world’s reserve currency or not; America’s poor and middle class won’t be.

        Of course attacking Iran has all of its own negative consequences as well but if Saudi affections are alienated the consequences could be dire whether we like it or not.

        A competent Administration whether Republican or Democrat might be able to manage all of this. Unfortunately in the realm of foreign policy the Obama Administration is anything but competent.

  • bpuharic

    Proof that Obama’s been indecisive?

    Well….there’s uh…ahem…everyone knows that well, we’ll get back to you on that one.

    The fact is this president, unlike his predcessor, is unwilling to spend US blood and treasure on expeditions to ‘nation build’ so beloved of conservatives. WRM confuses that with vacillation.

    And I’m happy to have him confused.

  • Bruce

    It is generally a good idea to make deals with people that live up to them. The odds of Iran living up to any terms are low. They lie. Anyone remember the deals we did with North Korea?

  • Douglas6

    Why does anyone care about Rouhani? He’s a messenger boy. He takes instructions from Ali Khameini, the Supreme Leader of Iran. What Rouhani thinks or says or does is irrelevant. If President Obama had any common sense, he would have a deputy assistant secretary of state take down whatever message Rouhani is carrying from Khameini. If Khameini wants to talk to President Obama, that would be a different kettle of fish. It’s Negotiation 101 that if you have the power to make decisions, you don’t negotiate with anyone who has an empty chair next to him, i.e., someone who has no authority to decide anything. Instead, you send someone who has no power. Alas, I think President Obama skipped that class in law school.

  • cubanbob

    What exactly are we supposed to negotiate about? Having Iran become a kinder, gentler terrorist state?

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “We should, but we should also not give our key regional allies the sense that we are about to sell them down the river in order to get peace with Iran.”
    Unfortunately this is exactly what Obama is going to do. He will get a crappy deal that screws our allies, and the Iranians will still get atomic weapons.

  • Pablo Schwartz

    In what sense exactly is Saudi Arabia a “key regional ally”? the innovation known as Wahhabism/Salafism inspired the 9/11 Attacks, the Taliban, and today seeks a “final solution” for both Mideast Christians and Islam’s Shia minority. If you were serious about combatting global terror, you would be calling for the extermination of every male member of the House of Saud (though given Saudi investment in U.S. media, i doubt that will ever happen ..)

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